When the story of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the verdict on Boris Johnson’s government is likely to be damning. Mr Johnson has made mistake after mistake, for which the country has paid a very high price. The prime minister is right in a sense that he presides over a “world-beating” performance: with 64,000 excess deaths, that is one excess death for every 1,000 people, the UK has recorded the largest global spike in deaths compared with the average yearly death toll; and the country will suffer the deepest depression of any developed economy.
Such a claim can be made because there’s no need to wait until all the facts are known. The gaffes are hiding in plain sight. Britain does not require the crisis to subside to analyse the country’s performance. The distinctive British response to this global challenge is one of missed opportunities and dismal misjudgments.
The UK went into lockdown too late, a decision that the former government modeller Neil Ferguson thinks has cost tens of thousands of lives – because the higher the coronavirus infection rate when restrictions were imposed, the higher the death rate. Then the country shut down its testing regime too soon, leaving it unable to track the speed and spread of the virus. During February and March, opportunities to suppress the spread of infection by introducing travel restrictions and quarantine requirements were missed, allowing the infection to be brought into the UK on at least 1,300 occasions.
Entering the lockdown late cost lives, and leaving it early risks more needless deaths. Britain is opening up before dropping its alert level, because the will to hold out evaporated when Mr Johnson did not sack his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, for breaching lockdown rules. Sacrifice could be borne as long as it was felt to be fair.
What Britain is dealing with is a government that has blundered, and continues to blunder. Which cabinet minister is responsible for the official guidance that instructed hospitals to discharge the elderly to care homes when testing and personal protective equipment was non-existent? Who has signed off on the policy to hand over contracts to private companies without competitive tendering or even a cursory check on whether they are up to the job? Which minister decided that local authorities who regularly manage outbreaks of meningitis and sexually transmitted diseases were not needed for the delayed test-and-trace system?
These are the reflexes of unthinking Conservative politicians, who view trade unions, local government leaders and professional bodies as powerful interest groups and influential lobbies to be thwarted, not listened to. In reality, most were attempting to help the government out of a hole by asking it to stop digging. What Covid-19 has revealed is who really makes society work and the value of public servants prepared to put their lives on the line. What the government does with that knowledge will tell the public about the true nature of those that govern it. It is an insult that foreign NHS staff and carers are still being charged for using the health service, despite the prime minister’s pledge to scrap these fees.
The buck stops at Downing Street, which was responsible for the discredited policy of herd immunity and the late introduction of the lockdown. The quickest way back to normality is by controlling the spread of the virus. The prime minister must recognise that mistakes were made and learn from them. The questions of what happened, why did it happen and what can be done to prevent this from happening again need to be answered. It is bizarre that Mr Johnson has precipitately announced a race review, one condescendingly aimed at ending a sense of victimisation, before confirming a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic. There will be real trouble if the prime minister refuses a reckoning with the truth.